Today’s race review of the San Francisco Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon is a guest post by Shari Blackburn.
By Shari Blackburn
Waking up to a dark room with the train sounding its horn outside of my window… I hesitate to lift or move any muscle. “Another day…” I remember this feeling of anxiousness like mornings before. This is something I questioned constantly as an endurance-junky… “What am I doing? Do I really want to purposely wake up at 3:30 in the morning to put my self through hours of pain and soreness?”
As I wash my face and look myself in the mirror, all I yearn for is my plethora of pillows and soft, warm bed. As I put on my running shoes and Team RWB t-shirt, I think of those who do no have the luxury as I do to put on a t-shirt and shorts. I remember those mornings gearing up in my ABUs, ready for pre-departure briefings at headquarters to the missile fields. Those days, winters were brutally cold… not knowing if we would get stranded again in the white abyss hours away from base. But we did what we had to. I reflect on what I used to do on a daily basis as I consume my coffee and light breakfast in the stillness of my cozy kitchen.
Grabbing my race bag, a lemon-lime Gatorade, and my wallet, I headed to the silent streets of San Francisco. Mornings like these make me wonder, “who else is up and getting ready for endurance race: Ironman, triathlons, marathons, ultras?” They all have their distinct properties, but in the end, they all have the same rewards and bring the same level of nervousness to race start. Within these empty streets waiting for dawn, I think of those heroes in distant countries looking towards an open, sandy sunrise on the horizon, waiting to see the sunrise in their hometowns but instead experiencing over 110 degrees of dry and rigid climate far away from their loved ones. Instantly, I remember the pools of sweat that I poured out of the mask from my MOPP gear. I chug the rest of my Gatorade while feeling the brisk breeze of a 50-degree, fog filled morning heading towards shuttle buses for the race.
Once I arrived to the run start, I see corrals upon corrals of people all nervous and excited. Although it was still dark, the skies were starting to light up and the air filled with Bay Area sea breeze was electrifying all of the runner’s lungs. As I waited to use the restroom, I see red fabric waving in the air. I immediately knew it was Bernadette.
We had made plans to meet because I did not receive a red RWB shirt when I first joined; I was wearing my “WOD for Warriors,” which was commemorating Veteran’s Day in 2013. I rushed over to see her, because I had arrived late to race start. She was a fellow RWB as well as team director. Excited, I said hello to the fellow RWB members who have joined her. I quickly said, “Have a great race,” as I rushed to switch shirts. At that moment I had just met her, but I felt as if I knew her. It wasn’t our individual personalities; it was the primary goal and mission that bonded us. I was a part of a team again… feeling a similar camaraderie that I haven’t felt since I left active duty service.
As I lined up to race start, I mentally prepare myself for another half marathon. I think of the mile markers, aid stations, and the horrendous hills that I would have to climb in order to received another medal. As I flashed these scenes through my heard, a bullhorn broke through my thoughts and I was on my way.
Holding a steady pace, I knew that this SF course was not a personal best time for any racer. I think to myself, “Under 10 on hills, and under 9 on straights.” As I worked on engaging my minute-per-mile strategy, my breath was steady as I found my stride. As I concentrated on my workout play list, the miles started melting away. During mile markers 5 and 6, I found myself on the bottom of the most challenging climb of the course: King of the Hill right before the glorious trek over the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is the portion where I typically see more walkers than runners. I knew my pace had to drastically decrease in order to maintain my breathing. I remember last year, where half way up the hill I gave in and walked about halfway through the climb. I knew I was going to make it… without stopping. Even if I was going at a 12 minute-mile pace, I was not going to stop.
Looking at the huge task in front of me as if I were David confronting Goliath, I took on the climb. Slowly, I looked to my right where a handful of runners were huffing and walking, completely out of breath. I just focused on the lyrics within my motivational music and dug deep. All of a sudden out of nowhere, like a cool wave washing over my doubts, I began to feel re-energized as I looked toward the left side of the course.
Along the left hand side of the course right before reaching the Golden Gate were boards of pictures. One after the other, a photo of a troop who had passed during service was displayed. Knowing where I came from and what I represent made my heart swell with pride as I mentally said, “Thank you for your service,” to those displayed on the course. At the very top, there were handfuls of people lined up from the Wear Blue: Run to Remember organization, each holding flags. Seeing their faces and remembering the poster boards of those who had fallen made all my worries go away. Picking up my pace, I felt the brush of all the U.S. Flags on my left arm, giving me an incredible amount of strength to make that last push to conquer the massive climb.
By the time I reached those large, red pillars, I was full of energy. The full length of the bridge from one side back to the other is roughly 3 miles. Today was not like the other years I have run this half marathon. The overcast and fog clouded much of the glorious bridge as I saw the SF skyscrapers in the midst. Breathing in, I realize the great freedom I have to enjoy my surroundings and just be thankful for the moments that I had to experience this with 16,000 other great individuals.
When I reached the downhill towards Presidio, I prepared myself for a long stretch prior to reaching the last 5K-marker. Miles 9 and 10 has always been my exhaustion point. Drained from what was already a long day, I still had the fallen troops in my mind. Another thing that I kept in mind was a segment I held tight from a Netflix documentary. A racer named John from The Barkley Marathons gave me hope to dig deeper and keep trucking towards the end. After so many unfortunate events in his life including the loss of his father, he stated, “You have to live for today. You never know when it’s your time.” This gave me much inspiration and is truly a story that I will cherish for as long as I can remember it.
Finally, shortly after mile 10, I could see the bright red, eagle tent that I knew would give me the most motivation for the day. As I saw the beautiful faces that were my RWB teammates, I ran by with a huge smile, slapping each of their hands. Their cheers and motivation was just the right thing I needed to succeed. I thought, “These people woke up so early… when they didn’t have to.” The amount of support that we received on the course was phenomenally filled with joy, pride, and motivation.
I quickly raced through the next miles, still struggling with the hills. But, as soon as I got to .10 miles left, I took everything that I had been thinking about throughout the race… the flags, the veterans, the bridge, and my fellow RWB teammates. I sprinted through the finish shoot and felt the familiar feeling of pride and accomplishment. The overcast and fog quickly broke away by the sun. The rays shining down on all the racers, this was a simple sign of congratulations from the city of San Francisco.
At the end of the day, I am left alone with a medal and 13.1 miles added to my mileage… another half marathon. But, this year was different. This year, I felt the complete embrace and encouragement from all the eagles in the area. I think, “This isn’t just a healthy lifestyle… this is a group of individuals choosing to carry on the flag to help other veterans make the most of their transition to the civilian world.” After all, once military always military and we have the obligation to maintain the camaraderie we built while serving. We keep each other up… we motivate each other… for what other generations have done before us.
It’s our turn.
Shari Blackburn is an Airman, an accomplished distance runner, and multiple 70.3 Ironman finisher. She recently completed the 2016 San Francisco Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon.
Shari was born in the small country of Panama. Being the daughter of an U.S. Army Infantryman, she grew up all over the US. Shortly after receiving her B.S. in Journalism from Georgia Southern University and following the footsteps of her military family, she entered the U.S. Air Force in 2011. She served 4 years active at Malmstrom AFB, both missile and base side. She made the transition from active to reserve and currently serves at Travis AFB as an Air Transportation Specialist. Along with working as a marketing and sales assistant for a startup company and a VA work-study, she is a full-time graduate student at Golden Gate University studying a dual Master of Business Administration in Public Relations and Human Resource Management. As an endurance addict, she has been actively involved as a USA Triathlon member since 2011. She became a member of Team RWB in 2012, advocating for veterans. In her free time, she trains, snuggles with her fur-babies (two malti-poo pups) and spending time with her loved ones.